Bon Appétit

BON APPÉTIT

Gacy really knew how to live.

If you find yourself on death row, you can look forward to a special treat on the way to the chair.  In many parts of the USA, prisoners about to be executed are allowed to request whatever they’d like as their last meal on this earth.  While the last meal tradition has roots in England and France, today it is inextricably tied to America’s relationship with capital punishment.

The archetypal last meal is something like John Wayne Gacy’s: a dozen deep-fried shrimp, a bucket of Kentucky Friend Chicken, french fries, and a pound of strawberries.  One might think 33 counts of murder warrants no special treatment, but tradition allowed Gacy a final moment of gluttony.  Timothy McVeigh ordered two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream (I approve).  Since Ted Bundy didn’t make a special request for his last meal, he was given a generic last meal of medium-rare steak, eggs over easy, buttered toast with jelly, hash browns, juice, and milk.  It seems that most death row inmates go for a last hurrah of excess.  Jessy Carlos San Miguel, who was put in prison for robbing a Taco Bell and shooting the restaurant’s manager, requested a pizza topped with beef, bacon bits, and double cheese; 10 quesadillas (5 mozzarella and 5 cheddar), 5 strips of open-flame grilled beef, 5 strips of stir-fried beef, broccoli, chocolate peanut butter ice cream, double fudge chocolate cake, grapes, and sweet tea.  

Others are more minimalist: Victor Harry Feguer, the last inmate to be executed before the death penalty’s temporary ban in 1972, asked for a single olive with the pit in it.  Robert Anthony Madden, who was executed at 23 for the murder (and postmortem binding and disposing of) a father-son duo, asked that his final meal be given to a homeless person instead of him.

In 2011, Lawrence Russel Brewer requested a large dinner before his lethal injection.  The white supremacist had been convicted of chaining a black man to his pickup truck and dragging him along the road, which decapitated his victim.  Brewer requested a pound of barbecue; half a loaf of white bread; three fajitas; a ground beef, tomato, onion, bell pepper, jalapeño, and cheese omelet; two chicken fried steaks smothered in gravy with sliced onions; a triple bacon cheeseburger; a large bowl of fried okra; a meat lovers pizza; a pint of vanilla ice cream; a slab of peanut butter fudge with crushed peanuts; and three root beers.  When he was given his meal, he refused to eat.  This was seen as an exercise of power against the prison system, forcing them to waste resources on a pointless act.  Texas officials decided that enough was enough, and officially ended the last meal custom in the state.

Final meals are inspired by Judeo-Christian values, drawing upon Passover and the Last Supper to indicate unity, forgiveness, and gratitude for salvation after a sacrifice of self.  They are ceremonial, with the potential to range from humorous to haunting.  But it seems bittersweet that after such a strong tradition held on in the States for so long, Texas is denying their death row inmates their final salvation.  I imagine they now have little left to look forward to.  While some, like Brewer, use their last meal request as a political tool to miff the prison officials, others may just wish to have a final taste of their free life.  Gacy was a KFC manager for years, and it seems like his last meal was more for his own pleasure than as a fuck-you to the prison.

After Texas’ decision, jailhouse chef Brian Price offered to prepare death row meals for free, but they denied him.  Since he cooked 218 last meals before the ban in 2011, Price noted in an interview: 

“The Texas Department of Corrections has a policy that no matter what the request, it has to be prepared from items that’s in the prison kitchen commissary. And, like if they requested lobster, they’d get a piece of frozen pollock. Just like they would normally get on a Friday, but what I’d do is wash the breading off, cut it diagonally and dip it in a batter so that it looked something like at Long John Silver’s — something from the free world, something they thought they were getting, but it wasn’t. They quit serving steaks in 1994, so whenever anyone would request a steak, I would do a hamburger steak with brown gravy and grilled onions, you know, stuff like that. The press would get it as they requested it, but I would get their handwritten last meal request about three days ahead of time and I’d take it to my captain and say, “Well, what do you want me to do?” And she’d lay it out for me. I tried to do the best I could with what I had. Amazingly, we did pretty well with what we did have. They are served two hours before they are executed and it is no longer a burger and fries or a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich or whatever they requested. All it is, two hours later, is stomach content on an autopsy report.”

 

- Rachel Hsu

Last Goodbyes

LAST GOODBYES

Sometimes death isn't the end

Abrahamic religions — Christianity, Judaism, and Islam — bury their dead rather immediately.  In the growing secular world, many people choose to be cremated.  However, many options exist outside of these, as is evidenced by different funeral traditions and attitudes towards death around the world.
On the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, the Torajan people have a special relationship with death.  A dead person who is still home with family is not dead, just makula’, just sick.  Shortly after passing, corpses are treated with formaldehyde so that they do not putrify.  Then, they are lovingly fed, washed, and spoken to.  While the poor can usually only justify keeping the dead for a few weeks before the funeral ceremony, it is a symbol of wealth and power to sustain a years-long relationship with the slowly mummifying corpse as family members from around the world are gathered for the eventual celebratory funeral ceremony.  At the funeral, the family sacrifices as many water buffalo as they can afford (one journalist notes that 24 seems to be the minimum) in order to ensure a quick journey to the afterlife after such a slow passing away from this realm.
That’s not the end.  Every few years, they visit their ancestral tombs for a ma’nene or second funeral.  They exhume their dead relatives and share new stories and memories.  The corpse’s clothes are changed and family pictures are snapped.  The practices on Sulawesi may seem bizarre, and yet it’s common in the Western world for people to pray to their dead ancestors, speak to them through those mechanisms, and even imagine that they’ve been visited by ghostly forms.  Torajans just happen to form a relationships with the bodies of the dead rather than the souls.
In Tibet, people practice celestial burials.  Inhumation space is scarce all over the world, but especially in the rocky mountains of Tibet.  Wood is a valuable resource, as fires are necessary for heat and cooking.  Western notions of burial and cremation are not particularly feasible in this part of the world.  Luckily, their local tradition doesn’t require too many ingredients — just a saw, some barley flour, and yak butter. 
The bodies of the dead are dismembered and defleshed by a rogyapa or “body breaker.”  The meat is pounded with a mallet into a mixture of the butter and flour to entice the local Himalayan griffon vultures, meat-eating birds with 9-foot wingspans.  The less tasty parts of the body are laid out first while the tender cuts are withheld so that the vultures don’t cut and run after grabbing the tastiest bits of human.  Once the body has been completely returned to nature, the funeral is complete.  The vast majority of Tibetans choose to be disposed of in this way.
Not to mention the fact that you can get ashes turned into a synthetic gemstone, a vinyl record, or a tree!  All of which don’t contribute towards the unfortunate fact that the Abrahamic religions’ full-body-burial traditions have led to rapidly decreasing cemetery real estate on our finite little planet.
With so many exciting options out there, it’s hard to imagine that everyone’s sticking with the same old formulae and family plots.  Yawn!
-Rachel Hsu

It Came From Outer Space

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Here’s something to look forward to in the New Year: the Halloween asteroid is back!

On October 31st, 2015, an asteroid passed close to earth, just a little further from us than the moon.  The reflectivity of this astroid is about 5%, which means it’s very dark and about as reflective as charcoal.  Its scientific name is 2015TB145, but it came to be known as the Halloween asteroid.  After it was sensed by a Pan-STARSS telescope in Hawaii, teams of astronomers, including NASA in West Virginia and the NAIC in Puerto Rico singled their sights in on the dark asteroid to get a better visual. 

It’s shaped like a human skull.

Asteroids are fairly rare.  The Halloween asteroid was the first to pass at such a close distance since 2006.  The human skull is a symmetrical but idiosyncratic shape, with cheekbones, teeth, a chin, two crater-like eye sockets, and a nasal cavity that looks like an upside-down  heart.  Halloween is a holiday invented by humans in the last few hundred years.  And yet, in 2015, chance had it that a skull zoomed by the planet on All Hallow’s Eve.

Then again, maybe it’s a sign from our alien overlords that they know we’re here and want to kill us.  Or it could be definitive proof that the world is a simulation, and for some reason the program grabbed the file for “human skull” and got it mixed up with the file for “inert rocky mass in outer space.”

Anyways.  If you missed it last time, the skull’s coming back sometime in November 2018.  It will slide through the night sky and whisper in an ancient tongue, telling you to vote in the midterm elections.

 

-Rachel Hsu

Donate Today!

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DONATE TODAY!

(what might happen when you donate your body to science)

The two picnic coolers, wrapped with duct tape, split open as the ground crew at the Detroit Metro airport tossed them onto a palette in a climate-controlled warehouse.  Out came pouring blood.  
Inside were eight human heads. 
And it was ostensibly legal.  The heads came from International Biological, Inc., which is one of those places one might choose to donate themselves to after death.  About 20,000 human bodies are donated in the US annually.  Selling a body is illegal, of course, but International Biological, Inc., manages to make quite the profit through allocation fees.
It charges for packaging (though how heads inside duct tape camping coolers is advanced packaging is not completely explained), delivery, “matching,” and “placing.”  At the end of the day, a human body’s various parts and pieces can yield a company like International Biological $100,000.
The owner of International Biological, Inc., Arthur Rathburn , did get in trouble for the eight heads, however.  The packages were marked to contain five heads, a torso, and a complete human body, so mislabeling was one gripe.  Secondly, the remains tested positive for hepatitis B, though Rathburn marked them as non-infectious.  The names and death certificates weren’t included with the heads either.  The red liquid in the cooler, which tested positive thrice for blood, was marked as a preservative.  So for fudging some bureaucratic labeling (and dealing in infected bodies), Rathburn was in hot water.  What wasn’t illegal is that the families of those bodies remained blissfully unaware until the story came to light, under the misapprehension that bodies donated to science are operated on by medical students, cremated, and returned to their families.
By time the FBI alerted Linda Hayes that her husband’s head was of those found in the Detroit airport, she had already scattered the ashes International Biological, Inc., had returned to her.
-Rachel Hsu

Pigeon Milk

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PIGEON MILK

Part of a balanced breakfast™️

You might not want to call a yellowish substance with a cottage-cheese consistency “milk,” but pigeon milk is a thing.
Like normal mammalian milk, pigeon milk contains protein and fat to nurture their babies.  It’s more densely packed with nutrients than cow or human milk, and in a study, chicks fed with pigeon milk were ultimately 16% heavier than those who received the normal baby bird diet of regurgitated insects, worms, and other predictable bird foods.  Even more enticingly, they’re packed with antioxidants (any animal that lives its life in urban squalor probably needs an amazing immune system).
The milk is produced in a pigeon’s crop, which is a thin-walled storage sac that projects from the esophagus.  This is where pigeons usually gather food while eating quickly, saving it to digest once they’re well out of harm’s way.  When the pigeon is lactating, fluid filled cells from the inside of the crop are sloughed off and regurgitated into their babies’ mouths.  Pigeon lactation is controlled by prolactin, the same hormone that controls lactation in us.
Scientists who are sequencing the pigeon genome are trying to isolate the specific genes that cause lactation in birds, with the possible intent to introduce pigeon milk to the market.
Just thought you ought to know.
-Rachel Hsu

Black Friday

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BLACK FRIDAY

(We know this scene made you cry)

As soon as Thanksgiving ends, the feverish holiday season is upon us.  Black Friday is a holiday of shopping and sales, so that everyone can do their Christmas/Hanukkah/Festivus errands while they’re still off work.  With this rush of shopping comes a lot of chaos.

A common source of injury on Black Friday in the past decade has been mall stampedes.  When faced with 50% off toasters and BOGO free jeans, humans start to resemble that one scene in The Lion King.  18 people have been trampled and severely wounded. one Wal-Mart employee met his doom after being rushed by eager deal-hunters. 

41 people have been pepper sprayed for Black Friday-related reasons in recent history (one perpetrator, who sprayed 20 people, called it an act of “competitive shopping” that helped her snatch up xboxes, wii games, and bratz dolls).  Car crashes attributed to Black Friday post-shopping exhaustion caused 13 major injuries and cost 3 lives.  In the land of the free (and Columbine and Pulse and Vegas), of course 15 people have been shot over things as mundane as prime parking spots.  And the count rounds out with 5 stabbings for good measure.

Here are some headlines from Black Friday, 2017:

“Black Friday Missouri mall shooting leaves teen seriously injured”

“One male shot, one male stabbed at Willowbrook Mall on Black Friday”

“One shot outside Missouri mall, brawls close Alabama shopping center as Black Friday begins”

But I got this great maroon turtleneck and a cute skirt from Madewell, so I’m calling this Black Friday a success!

-Rachel Hsu

Manson Dies 11/19/17

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America lost a swastika-adorned singer/songwriter this Sunday evening.  Charlie Manson, friend to the Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson and devout lover of the Beatles’ jam Helter Skelter, passed away from natural causes due to complications related to gastrointestinal bleeding a week after his 83rd birthday.  His presence in the music world is undeniable.  
His life and times inspired the names of Marilyn Manson and Spahn Ranch, led to the creation of the opera The Manson Family, and Squeaky Fromme made it into Sondheim’s acclaimed musical The Assassins.  
Born “No Name Maddox,” Charles Manson was a true family man and will be remembered by America.  In his honor we’ve compiled a special playlist to remember this all-American singer/songwriter.

Science: Mirror Monsters

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An old wives’ tale says that if a young unmarried woman carries a candle into a dark room and looks in the mirror on Halloween night, she’ll see the face of her future husband.  The Troxler  Effect tells us we can see something far worse.
In a 2010 experiment by Dr. Giovanni Caputo at the University of Urbino, 50 test subjects were told to watch their own reflections in low light for 10 minutes.  33 subjects reported seeing massive deformations of their own face.  People reported seeing their faces transform into one of their parents’, animal faces, or monsters after just ten minutes of observation.  These changes would last for seven seconds on average, and the deformations didn’t stay put in one place.  The longer their brains got accustomed to the same image, the more fictional information bled into their perception.  For most of the subjects, these effects began in about a minute.
It makes sense to filter out extraneous sensory perceptions; there’s no reason for your body to constantly be conscious of the contact lenses in your eyes, your clothes against your skin, or the way your tongue rests inside your mouth.  Our eyes constantly make micro-vibrations so that we don’t filter out visual information as easily as we can ignore a repetitive noise or pervasive smell.  But if you stare long enough, the Troxler Effect starts to take form. 
Dr. Caputo’s experiment is easy to replicate.  First, get comfy in front of a mirror.  Make sure you can see the details and fine lines of your face, but that the light is low enough that it’s hard to see color.  Make sure the light source is not visible in the mirror so that the only thing you’re focusing on is yourself.
Then just wait.
 
-Rachel